Traveling with Ease ~ How to Avoid Jet Lag


With physical, mental, and emotional symptoms it can be hazardous to your long term health.  In addition to fatigue and insomnia, it can also acutely cause anxiety, confusion, constipation, nausea, and even memory loss.

With many of us rushing to overseas destinations and planning ahead for our activities upon our arrival, we often forget to prepare for our sometimes lengthy plane rides. Traveling to foreign countries can be sometimes necessary and often exciting, but it is important to make sure that the actual travel portion of your trip is as comfortable and relaxing as possible.

While Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) is often frighteningly associated with flying, your chance of developing a clot on your flight is actually relatively low.  A more common concern that affects 80% of people who travel internationally is jet lag, also known as desynchronosis. This can be a major burden to any planned activity.

What is Jet Lag?

Jet lag is a disturbance induced by major a rapid shift in environmental time during travel to a new time zone.  Jet lag does exist, and it can have a negative impact on your vacation enjoyment and business judgment, and also a serious concern for medical tourists. With physical, mental, and emotional symptoms it can be hazardous to your long term health.  In addition to fatigue and insomnia, it can also acutely cause anxiety, confusion, constipation, nausea, and even memory loss.

Jet lag occurs because the body is unable to adapt immediately to a change in the time zone of your destination. The human body has an internal clock located in the almond-sized hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus.  The internal clock cycle, or circadian rhythm, is not set to the twenty-four hour day schedule – it is actually nearer to twenty-five hours. The hypothalamus regulates our sleep cycles, as well as many other body processes such as body temperature, hunger, and thirst.

Our sleep is regulated by the production of the hormone melatonin. When our eyes perceive a change in the day and night schedules that we are not used to, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which then becomes confused and  sends signals that may adversely affect our body’s function and respond in ways that are not appropriate for that time of day. The perception of darkness alerts the hypothalamus to secrete melatonin which promotes sleep and the perception of light forces the hypothalamus to withhold melatonin.  

A disruption to the circadian rhythm affects alertness, appetite, and hormone secretion because the hypothalamus is unable to immediately recover to a change in the environment. These interactions are responsible for the majority of the symptoms of jet lag.

The body is able to adapt relatively well to change in two or three time zones, however when traveling between the US and Europe, for example, it becomes a much greater burden on the body.  Fortunately, jet lag does not occur when traveling north or south but with many popular medical tourism locations currently located in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, it is an issue we all have to handle as best as possible.

If you are experiencing any health problems, you should always check with your doctor before you fly.  Occasionally, sufferers of peptic ulcer disease may find that their symptoms are more severe with flying and women who fly frequently may find that their menstrual cycle is disrupted.  In addition, diabetics who are on insulin treatment should discuss changing their insulin schedule before flying.

Preventing jet lag on the day of your flight is actually an easier task than you might expect if you make an effort. First and foremost, if you have trouble clearing your ears, it might be helpful to take a decongestant before you board the plane to prevent a restless flight. Consult your doctor before doing this, however.  

Consider these physiological and psychological affects on the medical tourist.  In addition to the stress of going to a foreign land and undergoing a surgical procedure, now yu must think of all these other effects that may come into play.

Leaving Home

Try to maintain a positive attitude regarding flying.  Our bodies are very adept at reacting to mental stressors and any fear of flying may falsely present itself as a bodily complaint or exacerbate any effects of jet lag.  Next, in order to adequately prepare yourself for your trip, it is imperative that you wear loose and comfortable clothing on any flight. Any restriction in movement during the flight may cause restlessness and irritation.

You may be tempted to dress up in trendy, expensive outfits for flights; however, while your clothes may look great on your arrival, the person wearing them may suffer the consequences, looking worn out and drained.

Another very big factor in preventing jet lag involves changes in diet. A new study from Harvard involving mice showed that avoiding food altogether, though difficult, may be a good thing. When the mice were prevented from eating food, they were observed to react differently. The researchers discovered that a “secondary” rhythm appeared to take over that allowed the mice to wake up in order to seek food during times when they would be sleeping.

While this finding may not apply directly to humans, experts believe that fasting before a flight will help in adjusting to the time difference.   If that is not possible, eat a high protein breakfast instead and try to avoid carbohydrates of fats.

It is also a good habit to reduce stress as much as possible while on your flight.  This may include listening to music, reading, or meditation. Often, focusing on these means or any particular method of your choice will help to alleviate tension and prevent the effects of jet lag. Consider buying a good pair of noise-canceling headphones that will help reduce a lot of the clamor of your surroundings, including the jet engines a few feet from your chair.

Another very important tip to prevent jet lag is applying skin lotion or any moisturizer to minimize dehydration. The dry air of the airplane cabin wicks moisture away from the skin and can cause acute water loss if not managed and taken into consideration. Much of the moisture of our bodies is also lost through breathing so it is important to further provide your body with plenty of fluids, avoiding caffeine as this may interfere with your metabolism.

Next, try to avoid taking sleeping pills. Pill-induced sleep prevents the natural movement of our bodies in sleep and may predispose to clots, another danger of flying. Also, while some experts promote the use of melatonin, it is a controversial treatment that is better avoided. In addition, many sleep medicines carry with it the potential for addiction, a risk better left alone. A relaxing and soothing tea may work wonders.

Finally, try to snooze until it is breakfast time in the city of your purpose. This practice will help to adjust your internal body clock to the time of your destination. Oftentimes, many people try to follow the schedule of their destination city for days in advance to prevent any symptoms of jet lag.  This habit, if not interfering with your other daily obligations, can actually decrease the effects of jet lag a great deal.

Arriving at your Destination

Now that you have done your best to prevent jet lag during your flight, let us focus on some tips that will tackle any lingering symptoms that may disrupt your activities.

It is important to remain active and fight off any urges to sleep in the middle of the day. Your body may still be in the time zone of your departure city, but you are expected to function at your current time zone. Take a stroll around your hotel and become familiar with your surroundings, but first check with the hotel staff to make sure that this is okay.  Physical activity, while always a good idea, is especially important in keeping the body alert after flying.

Try to stay in the sunlight immediately for at least twenty minutes without any sunglasses. This will further help your body clock readjust itself to your current time zone. It will also delay the onset of drowsiness by keeping your body limber and active.

Keep your friends close!  Talking and maintaining stimulating conversation will go a long way in keeping yourself awake.  Studies have shown that intimate relationships drastically improve recovery time and illness, and can also be a big help during traveling.  Discuss the purpose of the trip and what you hope to accomplish to keep yourself oriented.  Also, talk about the new sights in front of you.

Some believe that walking on the ground barefoot will equalize your electromagnetic system and minimize your body’s fatigue. While this has not been entirely proven, the mental benefits, such as placebo, cannot be completely excluded.

As your body may have dehydrated itself while on the plane, continue to drink plenty of fluids and to stay as hydrated as possible. Oftentimes, dehydration symptoms itself present as jet lag and this can be avoided by keeping a bottle of juice or water handy. Also, to further enhance this effect, take a cold shower to help rejuvenate and energize your body.

A warm shower, on the other hand, tends to relax the body and promote sleepiness. When it is time to finally sleep at the time of your destination, a warm bath is warranted to put you in that relaxing night-time rest mode.

If you can minimize the effect of jet lag, you should be fresh and ready to complete any and all tasks ahead of you. Remember that a sleepy brain is a liable brain. Enjoy your flight!

AbdelSalam Kaleel is a 4th year medical student at Saba University School of Medicine. He has also received his Hyperbaric Masters of Science Degree and is a certified hyperbaric tender and driver. He has been published in numerous magazines, including Teens’ Crossroads and Dialogue, and is a weekly correspondent for the Brunei Times newspaper.

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